“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan
When I first started studying LDS church history intensively this year, I came to what was to me an obvious conclusion: the LDS church and the LDS scriptures aren’t literally “true” the way I had always been taught they are. I remember sitting in bed a week or two later, and thinking: “I bet if I look into the historicity of the Bible, if I’m going to find the same thing, aren’t I.” I don’t even remember what I specifically read, but it didn’t take me too long before I confirmed what I had feared: the stories in the Bible, even including the New Testament, are not all literally true. They may teach good principles, but it’s not all literal history.
Lately I have wondered, how much does the historical record of Jesus match up with what we read in the Bible? In “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan, the author describes the context behind the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and then explains what we know about him, and how it compares to what we read in the New Testament.
When the Romans ruled the Jews, many Jews were looking for a “messiah” to liberate them from Roman rule. “Messiah” means “anointed one”, as in someone who is anointed with oil like what the Jews did with their kings. To call yourself a messiah during Roman rule indicated you meant to liberate the Jews from the Romans and was tantamount to treason. Only Rome could name someone “King of the Jews,” and that person was always a puppet to Roman rule. No one was looking for a messiah the way Christians talk about Jesus today: someone who is deity and is a sacrifice for sin. There were many people who claimed to be a messiah both before and after Jesus, and none of them were able to permanently free the Jews from Roman rule. Also, there were many revolutionaries among the Jews who believed with their “zeal” that they could fight off the Romans and free the country from oppression. They believed God would help them to defeat the aggressors, because the Jews were God’s chosen people. The scriptures were full of times when God had helped his people to win battles, and they believed God would save them again. In 66 C.E. the Jews rebelled and were able to be free of Roman rule, but by 68 C.E. much of Israel had been recaptured by the Romans. In 70 C.E. the Romans retook Jerusalem, and in 73 C.E. the entire rebellion was over.
Jesus of Nazareth vs. Jesus Christ
Aslan’s thesis is that Jesus of Nazareth is very different from what Christians now consider Jesus Christ. For example, Jesus often talked about the “Kingdom of God” which to Christians implies a heavenly kingdom, or maybe God’s religious organization on earth. Aslan believed that Jesus of Nazareth meant something entirely different when he spoke of the Kingdom of God:
What made Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom of God different from John’s, however, was his agreement with the zealots that God’s reign required not just an internal transformation toward justice and righteousness, but a complete reversal of the present political, religious, and economic system. “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry, tor you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall soon be laughing” (Luke 6:20—21). These abiding words of the Beatitudes are, more than anything else, a promise of impending deliverance from subservience and foreign rule. They predict a radically new world order wherein the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry fed, and the poor are made rich. In the Kingdom of God, wealth will be redistributed and debts canceled. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 5:3—12 | Luke 6:20—24).
He also argues that some of the stories in the New Testament are obviously false, and that the original writers and readers of the gospels would have known the stories were false. For example, he explains how the explanation found in Luke of how Mary and Joseph came to be in Bethlehem is “in a word, preposterous.” The Romans did conduct a census for the purpose of taxation in 6 C.E., but scholars believe Jesus was more likely born in 4 C.E. Also, the census did not extend into Galilee where Jesus’ family lived. Finally, the Romans never made families uproot themselves to go to the birthplace of their parents in order for their possessions to be counted, when the possessions would have been left behind anyway. Both Luke and his writers would have known this as well, and they would have been fine with it.
Luke himself, writing a little more than a generation after the events he describes, knew that what he was writing was technically false. This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word “history.” The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths.
A “Nagging Fact to Consider”
Although Alan’s purpose is to reveal the historical Jesus, he admits:
However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.
So was Jesus actually resurrected? Aslan says the answer is a matter of faith, not history. Many of his followers believed he was. The first resurrection stories were written in the mid- to late nineties, but Paul writes about the resurrection around 50 C.E. So it appears it was something talked about early in the history of the Christian church.
Paul vs. James
Aslan paints a picture of there being a strong difference in belief between Paul and James. James was the brother of Jesus and lived in Jerusalem, and was the leader of the Christian religion. He believed it was important to keep living the law of Moses as contained in the Torah, and that the temple sacrifices and rites should continue to be followed. Jesus taught the priests running the temple had become corrupt, but James thought the temple was still important. Paul, on the other hand, didn’t live in Jerusalem, thought the law of Moses should be done away with, and that Jesus made the temple no longer necessary. In Aslan’s view, Paul exalted Jesus to be deity more in line with how Christianity views Jesus today: Jesus the Christ. James and his followers in Jerusalem held more closely to Jesus being closer to the historical Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth. A man truly favored of God, but not deity. A man who tried and would eventually succeed in freeing the Jews from Roman rule, once he returned as he promised.
So why did Paul’s version of Jesus win out? Jerusalem was totally destroyed in 70 C.E., and along with it, the Jewish religion was made a pariah in the Roman world. Paul’s version of Christianity downplayed the Jewish faith, and taught that the temple and the law of Moses were no longer necessary. This was a much easier thing to accept for new converts since they wouldn’t need to embrace the religion and its temple worship that had been destroyed. The Nicene Creed of 325 C.E. solidified in the Christian church the idea that Jesus was God, but really it confirmed what was already the majority belief of the Christian community.
Aslan has written a very accessible and interesting account of the historical Jesus, and how Christianity developed its interpretation of Jesus as God. It’s a quick read, and appears to be well-researched. But this is my first venture into the topic, so for all I know, Aslan may be more biased one way or another. A friend of mine has suggested I next read “How Jesus Became God” which he says gives a more balanced view, even though he also enjoyed reading “Zealot”. I could see this book being harmful to a devout Christian’s belief, just like reading LDS church history can be harmful to a traditional belief in the LDS church’s truth claims. But personally I prefer to learn as much as I can and then decide for myself what I think about it. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about Jesus of Nazareth and how he became Jesus Christ.